Kosher Movies: Young Sherlock Holmes

When I was a graduate student on Hunter College in New York, I took a course in Modern American Literature with a group of very bright students, but Jonathan surpassed them all. Strangely, he rarely came to class; but whenever he did come, he shared insights that truly mesmerized me. I learned more from him than from the instructor. He taught me the value of thinking outside of the box when interpreting and understanding the great classics of literature.

On the eve of the final, Jonathan called me and asked if he could come over and borrow my notes. He knew my notes were complete and accurate and he wanted to review them before the test. Happily, I gave them to him. Inwardly, I felt it was his choice to attend class or not, and if he felt attending class was a waste of his time, so be it. It was my choice as a friend to share my notes with him.

Friendship is at the core of Young Sherlock Holmes, an imaginative recreation of how Sherlock Holmes and John Watson became friends. Their personalities are diametrically opposed. Holmes is independent and daring, and Watson is a “play it by the book” medical student, staunchly averse to risk, always worried about jeopardizing his academic future. However, he admires Holmes’s adventurous spirit. Despite their differences, their affection for one another grows and is celebrated in the many detective novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The film begins in Victorian England on a dark night when we see a hooded assassin use a blowpipe to shoot a dart into an unsuspecting man. The dart causes the man to hallucinate and commit suicide. Two more people die under similar circumstances; and Holmes, a friend of one of the victims, tries to piece together clues to find the murderer. This leads to all sorts of escapades in which he and Watson put themselves in danger as they discover an Egyptian cult bent on taking revenge for a wrong committed many years earlier.

At the end of their adventure, Holmes and Watson take leave of one another, and Watson realizes he forgot to thank him. Years later, Watson reflects on Holmes: “He had taken a weak, frightened boy and made him into a courageous, strong man. My heart soared.” The friendship had transformed Watson and for that he was eternally grateful.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, reminds us not to take friends for granted and to appreciate what they do for us. Specifically, we are bidden to “acquire for yourself a friend.” Surely it does not refer to buying friends with money. One of the Sages interprets the aphorism by telling us that to acquire a friend, we cannot be rigid in our own opinions. We have to be open to the voice of others who see things differently. When we are sensitive to the needs of others and are tolerant of diverse opinions, then friendship grows. Friendship cannot thrive in an environment where friends are not free to express their opinions without fear of ridicule. Moreover, the Sages point out that we should give honor to anyone who teaches us even one piece of wisdom.

These aphorisms resonated as I watched Young Sherlock Holmes. The story, narrated by Watson, reveals that he grew as a person because he recognized that Holmes, although different from him, was a person of great insight from whom he could learn. Watson did not let his own personal bias interfere with nurturing a new friendship. Indeed, friendship ultimately flowers in a garden of tolerance.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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